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The Benefits of Breast Milk

Breast milk is the perfect food for your baby. It contains just the right amount of nutrients. It is also gentle on your baby's developing stomach, intestines, and other body systems. 

Mother breastfeeding infant.

Healthiest for baby

Breast milk gives your baby many benefits compared with formula. They include:

  • Breast milk lowers the risk for sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

  • The nutrients in breast milk are best for your baby’s developing brain, nervous system, and eyes. Breastfed babies do better on intelligence tests when they are older.

  • Breast milk is full of antibodies. These are things that help your baby fight infectionand other diseases. Breast milk lowers your baby's risk for lung and ear infections.

  • Breastfeeding reduces your baby’s risk for allergies andskin problems caused by allergies. Formula-fed babies are more likely to have milk allergies.

  • Breastfed babies have less diarrhea and are less likely to have digestive (gastrointestinal) infections and problems. Breast milk makes it less likely that a baby born early (premature) will get serious gastrointestinalinfections. Formula can actually change the healthy bacteria in a baby’s intestines. The bacteria help with digestion and fighting disease.

  • Breastfed babies have less long-term health problems when they grow up. These problems include diabetes and obesity.

Healthiest for mom

Women who breastfeed also get health benefits. Breastfeeding:

  • Burns calories. This can help you lose pregnancy weight faster.

  • Lowers your risk for ovarian and breast cancers

  • Lower your risk of getting diabetes later in life

What is exclusive breastfeeding?

Only (exclusive) breastfeeding for at least the first 6 months of life is best for your baby. This means your baby should get only breast milk. It can be expressed and fed to your baby in a bottle, as needed.

You should not give your baby water, sugar water, formula, or solids during his or her first 6 months. Except:

  • When your baby's health care provider tells you to

Your baby’s provider may also tell you to give your baby vitamins, minerals, or medicines. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that breastfed babies get extra vitamin D. Your baby's provider will tell you about the type and amount of vitamin D you should give your baby.

Risks of not breastfeeding only

You know about many of the benefits of breastfeeding. But you might not know why it is important to breastfeed only for at least 6 months.

Your baby gets the best protection against health problems when he or she gets only breast milk. Breastfeeding some of the time is good. But breastfeeding all of the time is best.

Giving your baby formula or other liquids may make you:

  • Have more problems breastfeeding

  • Produce less milk

  • Be less confident in breastfeeding

  • Breastfeed less often

  • Stop breastfeeding before your baby is at least 6 months old                                                                                                                                      

Who should not breastfeed only

Breastfeeding only is almost always recommended. But your health care provider may have reasons to recommend giving your baby formula or other liquids. They include:

  • Your baby has certain health problems. Breast milk only is usually recommended, but you may need to add formula or other liquids. For example, your baby may need this if he or she has low blood sugar (hypoglycemia), loss of body fluids (dehydration), or high levels of bilirubin.

  • You have or have had certain health problems. There are few reasons why you should not breastfeed your baby. Some infections can be passed from your skin to your baby's skin or through your breast milk. And some medicines, illegal drugs, and alcohol can be passed to your baby through your breast milk. For example, women with HIV, AIDS, chickenpox (varicella), or tuberculosis (TB) should not breastfeed. Women taking certain medicines or using drugs or alcohol also should not breastfeed.

Online Medical Reviewer: Amsley-Camp, Kim, CNM, MS
Online Medical Reviewer: Gillman, Diana, MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Holloway, Beth, RN, MEd
Date Last Reviewed: 10/7/2011
© 2000-2015 The StayWell Company, LLC. 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.